You've heard it before—first impressions are everything, whether it's for a job interview, a first date, or the curb appeal of a new home. So, if your condo or homeowners association has begun to look a little shabby or as out-of-date, perhaps it's time to make everything old new again.
Sometimes it takes more than just a fresh coat of paint to update an appearance; sometimes it's a matter of investing in more—new signage, lighting, or landscaping elements, to name a few. But the bottom line of any makeover, small or large, is just that: the bottom-line benefits that you'll reap from a job well done.
HOA makeovers can create happier residents who get more profit for their investment, as well as an improved profile for the building or association as a whole. Properties that are well-maintained are not only aesthetically pleasing but it is a sure bet that property values will also increase.
Joel Mergas, of Forbes-Mergas Design Associates, Inc. in New York City, says that associations should be considering hallway updates at least every ten years, but lobbies—which take a heavier beating from foot traffic—should be refreshed every five or six years.
"Buildings try to stretch it out, but it's subject to the real estate market too," he says. "If the market is good, you can't afford to sit back and have your building fall behind. Competition drives the renovation."
Design by Committee
When deciding on the specifics of an association facelift, most professionals agree that the first step is to put together a strong design committee made up of residents and a few board members. And all with the help of the landscape architect should collaborate on evaluating exactly what needs refurbishing. "When updating a community's appearance, the first thing necessary is to evaluate the property," according to Barry Yacker, a state-certified landscape architect with Livingston-based DuBrow's Nurseries the past 11 years.
"This is accomplished by walking the community and formulating a list determining what still works and can remain, what can possibly be pruned back or transplanted and what absolutely needs to be removed. Then a master plan needs to be created showing all the work that is desired," Yacker explains.
The managing agent also plays a key role in any remodeling project, according to Dennis Lee, principal and executive vice president of the Apogee Companies in Boynton Beach, Florida.
"They'll have experience with these projects elsewhere," says Lee. "And they will bring that to the table, as well as bringing in the correct people to do the job. Your manager is your number-one point of contact."
Show Me the Money
But like most things in this world, the reality is that aside from appointing a committee and enlisting the help of your agent, all of this costs money. Even a modest overhaul—a simple paint job for a large lobby and hallways, for example—can cost thousands of dollars. Add in lighting fixtures, new plantings and a beautiful new sign at the gatehouse of your association, and you might be looking at a budget-buster—or even an unwelcome assessment for residents, if you're not adequately prepared.
According to Lee, an association's initial knee-jerk reaction to the high cost of a project might be to run out and get a loan to cover it—but that may not be the smartest course of action. Instead, he advises associations to consult with their management company and work on trimming the fat from the monthly budget to raise funds for the project. If that doesn't cover it, it may be time for a special assessment.
"Budget should not be an issue at this point, focus should be on the final design," counters Yacker. "Phasing can be put into place to meet budgets later. Once a final plan is accepted, the real decisions start. The committee needs to look at the yearly budget and decide how they want to proceed."
And continues Yacker, "The highest impact areas for a community are: the entrance, pool and clubhouse. These areas should be addressed first. Re-landscaping these areas alone can change the look of the community dramatically."
Once these major areas are addressed, sprucing up the individual units can be phased in accordingly, he adds. Buildings can be totally re-landscaped a few at a time based on budgets, or all of the buildings can have some work done to them at once—but only if it is done in such a way that next year's work will not disturb this year's [work], Yacker says.
It might also be wise to do a cursory review of the overall budget, including maintenance items, says Lee. "Take a close look at the budget and make sure it's maximized and you're not spending money needlessly on day-to-day items. Oftentimes, we'll do a budget review and find we're able to save the associations five to 20 percent on what it's costing them each month to operate."
If your budget simply doesn't allow for a full makeover, Mergas suggests creating a schedule prioritizing what needs to be done and then focusing on one or two annual projects.
"Look objectively at the facility and focus on one thing that will give you the biggest bang for your buck," says Mergas.
William Hallisky, an associate with the architectural firm Meridian Design Associates in Manhattan is currently working with an HOA with a limited budget—but that didn't stop the firm from creating a workable and affordable design idea for their client.
"We decided we would replace the existing poorly-constructed entry doors with new doors of substance," explains Hallisky. "Add to that two well-chosen potted plants and bingo, instant curb appeal. It has been a huge success for residents and potential home-owners."
Whatever you do, warn the experts, don't avoid repairs and allow your property to get severely rundown. Once that happens, your association—and its property values—could take years to recover, if they recover at all.
Budget isn't the only factor to consider when planning an improvement. Think about location, owner demographics, and don't get caught up in fads. And choose your landscape professional very carefully.
Hallisky agrees. "The trick," he says, "is to avoid 'fashion.' Homeowners associations too often fall into the 'model home' trap, and that is just not necessary. Start with the basics and build on that.I usually recommend that associations build one or two projects a year in their budgets.A little here and a little there keeps things fresh all the time, making major face-lifts unnecessary.A freshly painted lobby or adding new light fixtures go a very long way. And at the end of the day, never defer maintenance—and keep the common areas pristine."
The choice of a qualified professional is also vital, says Yacker. "It is important to find a landscape architect that is experienced in this type of work. A landscape architect will work with your ideas to create a functional and aesthetic design for your site. They will also be able to provide you with design ideas that you may not have thought of," he says. "A landscape architect can produce estimates for the work and give you yearly budgets to get you to completion economically. A landscape architect will help you to find a qualified installer and will oversee that the project is being installed properly."
Other options are choosing a firm that has an in-house architect and installation division. Pricing may be more reasonable if the company does everything in-house, he suggests.
One final word of advice. "Interview several firms. You have to be comfortable and trust the people you are working with," says Yacker.
Giving your community an occasional facelift is a good thing not only in the abstract but in the real world—so that the place you call home is a place you certainly can be proud of.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.